Indians, Environmentalists Vow Rough Water for Chile Dam
The Bio-Bio River in central Chile runs through a breathtaking valley of jagged canyons, dense forests, fertile meadows, and snow-capped volcanoes.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It also runs through the ancestral lands of Nicolasa Quintreman, a Pehuenche Indian. And therein lies the final rub for engineers who for decades have felt their hearts quicken at the thrilling thought of damming up the Bio-Bio.
Next year, the Chilean energy company, Endesa, plans to begin construction of a huge, 570-megawatt hydroelectric dam just a few miles downstream from the land the diminutive but sharp-tongued Ms. Quintreman says her family has owned for 500 years. The dam's reservoir is to flood the lands of 100 Pehuenche families, so Endesa is seeking to buy them out.
But as she boils pine nuts and readies bread dough in her traditional smoke-filled cooking hut, Quintreman says, "This is my land. They can offer me all the cows and other goodies they want for it. The only way I'll leave here is dead."
The standoff between Endesa and a handful of Pehuenche Indians like Quintreman is feeding a boiling controversy pitting Indian rights activists, environmentalists, alternative-energy advocates, and ecotourism promoters against the giant Endesa. On Endesa's side are government officials - including Chilean President Eduardo Frei, himself a hydraulic engineer - and businessmen who see projects like the Bio-Bio dam as indispensable elements in Chile's impressive economic growth.
The Bio-Bio brouhaha has also spilled over Chilean borders, as international environmentalists and whitewater rafters have joined the battle. Even hydraulic engineers from the United States have chimed in with "learn-from-our-mistakes" tales about the drawbacks of big dams.
Plans to harness the Bio-Bio with as many as six dams have been on energy maps since Chile's 1973-90 dictatorship. One dam was completed in 1996 and is operating downstream from where the much larger Ralco dam is set to be running by 2002. Upon completion, Ralco will supply almost one-fifth of the energy needs for central Chile, including Santiago, where energy demand is doubling every decade.
"The energy-generating power of water is the cheapest way for Chile to go," says Adolfo Ochoa, assistant manager of construction for Endesa in Pangue. In response to critics who say the dam is unnecessary since Chile began importing natural gas from Argentina, Mr. Ochoa says, "gas is an important part of [Chile's] energy mix, but that doesn't change the need for Ralco. This dam figures in all the energy supply calculations for the next 10 years."
The political waters that Endesa is navigating are much more troubled than when it built the first dam. Since then, Chile has approved stricter environmental laws and new Indian-rights legislation.
Environmentalists say the Ralco dam would not only silence a river but also a number of plant and animal species, including six species of fish unique to the Bio-Bio. And they insist that electricity from the Ralco dam, located about four hours by car from Bio-Bio's mouth in Concepcon, could be replaced by other, less-damaging sources of energy.
Alternative energy forms
"I am interested in the environmental impact of this project, but it is also a fact that Ralco is anti-economic for Chile," says Juan Pablo Orrego, head of the Bio-Bio Action Group in Santiago. "Natural gas is just coming on, and thermal and solar power generation have hardly been touched."
A former rock musician, Mr. Orrego has been battling the damming of the Bio-Bio since 1991, when he accompanied an ESPN TV rafting crew down the river. "We were just maneuvering through the area where the Pangue reservoir now sits when someone from ESPN in the raft said, 'And to think all this will soon be lost.' I didn't even know," he says - but he went back to Santiago and formed the action group. Last year, his efforts won him the prestigious Goldman Prize for international environmental action.